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I'm in the second year of a master's program, working on a thesis. I am not getting enough help from my supervisor because he has a different methodological background from me. I am also not finding enough evidence to complete the thesis, and the topic has been very difficult to research because almost nothing is written about it. I am dreading completing this degree. What are some constructive ways I can deal with this issue and complete the degree? Is it possible at this point to make it through the degree and succeed despite my poor choice of topic and supervisor?

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    Perhaps, this answer by JeffE will be somewhat helpful. :) – 299792458 Dec 16 '15 at 5:50
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    If your topic is 'obscure' and you can't find much evidence/literature that suggests to me you're producing something novel. That sounds exciting! ☺ – Phil Dec 16 '15 at 18:34
  • @user46140 Please follow this procedure to merge your accounts so that you'll have "ownership" of the question and will be able to edit it directly and comment on it. Thanks! – ff524 Dec 16 '15 at 22:32
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Both my partner and I felt exactly the same way towards the end of our respective master's programs (in totally different disciplines, at different institutions). I was advising her, and vice-versa, to just stick it out for a few more months and complete the program. We'd both put in so much work and effort up to those times, it would have been a shame to just totally wash out with nothing to show for it.

Now here we are a decade or two later, and both of our careers have been completely predicated on having those degrees as door-openers and a foundation for success. I really love my job in academia, and it wouldn't be possible if I hadn't completed that program. I just asked my partner if she could go back in time to that very difficult period, how she'd advise herself, and she said "Definitely, stick out! Get that diploma!".

In both cases it took us about 5 years to mentally "wash off" that feeling of desperation. But we both feel so much better off, skill-wise, to have that under our belts. Best wishes; it does get better.

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I know how you feel, I have been in similar enough situation. From your perspective now it maybe looks dark but it's not. You are almost finished, just one step and that masters degree is yours.

First, I assume you are from USA, so different system than in mainland Europe where i studied, so take that in mind.

If you find your thesis dull and mentor unhelpful, easiest way is to switch thesis, but better yet, switch both thesis and mentor. If you opt to do this, best way is to approach your mentor, tell him how you feel about your thesis and politely ask if it's possible to change theme of your thesis. You are still stuck with the problem of not very helpful mentor. Most faculties have on the website written rules and regulations, there should be something about changing mentors for master thesis. If they don't there is always student service or somebody in administration who can tell you how to do it. For example, in PhD program on my faculty, it is explicitly stated that you can change both PhD thesis and mentor once, no questions asked. It is wise to assume yours has similar rules, even in masters program. Even if you have to pay for additional semester, it would be worth it since you are clearly unhappy with current situation.

I have changed both my mentor and master thesis since midway into it, our ideas parted and his were highly unappealing and boring. I thanked the professor for his time and parted ways with him since further cooperation wasn't possible (and at that time i was kind of angry at he prof for wasting both his and my time). Change did set back my graduation for about 6 months, I had to pay for additional semester, but in the end I did thesis on the subject I liked with the great professor who backed me up and help me out lot more than previous one.

Last thing, if you can't change anything, don't give up. You invested a lot of time and effort to get to where you are now. Don't throw it away. Write what you can, submit it to the mentor and see if you can defend it even if you think it's sub par by your own criteria. Once you get the diploma, you can bury that thesis and forget about it.

Best of luck :)

  • From the last paragraph: "Write what you can." The most freeing sentence for progress is to remove my ego from the work and know that I can always revise tomorrow but I'll have nothing to edit if I don't write anything today. "Write without fear. Revise without mercy." – Xoque55 Apr 19 '18 at 20:35
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There are some great answers here! To add, I might suggest trying to find help / support from other professors in your department. If there's no one who uses your approach or might be able to offer some helpful input, you could also consider contacting other, more senior graduate students or scholars elsewhere who do work in your area. If you do either of these, I would strongly encourage you not to bring up problems with your adviser. If you can indicate that you find the (other) professor's work engaging it might help your chances of hearing back in a timely manner. The conferences that Captain Emacs talks about can be a great way to find like minded people to approach.

Overall, I agree with the 'stick it out' advice you're getting. I think it applies to your situation. In case others are reading this, I'll say that there can be a time when sticking it becomes increasingly foolhardy. This would be a more common problem for students pursuing a PhD who, despite being many years 'in,' are encountering ongoing problems (unable to get approval for a defense date or to get feedback of any kind, for example). Reconstituting a committee at this stage is an option, but one that is sometimes seen as risky to other professors who might take you on - not least because they do not want to be seen as 'crossing' your existing adviser. Pursuing administrative options can also be difficult, especially if the people you are talking to are professors or former professors who locate blame with the student and not the larger situation or the existing adviser. These can be gloomy times - particularly if you're having to take out student loans against an already grim professional future to fund an endless cycle of revisions.

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A few tips: try to go to conferences of that topic. If your supervisor likes you, he will support it. Interacting with other people in the field can be liberating and inspiring. "Go to conferences" was the single most useful advice I got during my PhD. Spend your own money if necessary and possible, but try to identify the relevant ones, don't waste time and money on side tracks.

Make contact with experts on the topic and see how they see the field.

Else, see whether there is an alternative direction that you can develop. It is rare that you get just the results you aimed for originally. It is ok to vary the direction (of course, after consultation with your supervisor). Some topics can be very hard, and need to be attacked from the back-entrance which you have to find first, but you won't if you try the same things again and again. Vary your approach.

Finally, how far are you? If you have already some considerable material, map out what is missing and plug through. If you are at the beginning, reorientation (possibly even with the current supervisor) may be an option.

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